A Chip Shop in Poznań: Learning to fry

A Polish chip shop is an unlikely gap year destination. But it was an education, says Ben Aitken

In March 2016, I decided, while in the sauna, to move to Poland.

It seemed sensible. For one, I wanted to know what the Poles in Britain had left behind. For two, there was a referendum in the diary (cheers Dave), and so I thought I’d better take advantage of my European mobility while I still had any.

Another thing that made the prospect of moving to Poland attractive was that whenever I mooted the idea, people generally laughed or frowned. If I’d said France or Spain, or Denmark or Italy, nobody would have questioned my intent, because the common sense has these countries down as desirable locations. As respectfully as possible, I hold common sense in contempt. In my experience, things that are commonly frowned upon or disparaged or unsung tend to be immensely pleasurable. Sunderland and microwave meals are cases in point. I hoped that Poland would be another.

I learnt that, on average, Poles would sooner fall to their knees and take a blow to the head than hear a bad word said about pierogi.

I booked the cheapest flight to a place I’d never heard of – Poznań. I turned up with little more than the socks on my feet and a couple of icebreakers. I moved into a flat with three Poles in a rough part of town put up by the Germans (Poland was divided between Germany, Russia and Austria for more than 100 years from the 1770s), then accepted a job in a fish and chip shop on the minimum wage. Despite lacking both motivation and qualification, the manager of the chip shop was prepared to pay me £1.80 an hour because I was British and therefore had fish and chips in my blood. (Of course, I was no more predisposed to the preparation of fish and chips than a Peruvian, and so the work was invariably chaotic and sweaty and testing.)

When I wasn’t peeling potatoes and boning fish (and falling in and out of love with my boss), I was on the road scratching the country’s surface. I missed the bus to Auschwitz; stayed with a dozen nuns in a 14th-century abbey near Kraków; was offered a job by a Eurosceptic farmer; and spent Christmas with a totally random family because I knocked on their door and said I was alone. I did all this against a colourful political backdrop. Brexit. Trump. A divisive new Polish government. There’s no two ways about it, it was an unlikely year.

It was also an educational year. I learnt how to get the skeleton off a cod in under a minute. I learnt about Ludwik Zamenhof, who instead of spending his evenings fiddling with a fantasy football team or watching Love Island, decided to build a language (Esperanto), so we all might get along a bit better. I learnt that Poland has suffered more traumatic episodes (a Swedish Deluge, a Nazi invasion, a Soviet yoke) than I’ve had hot dinners. I learnt that I prefer Polish cities to the Polish countryside, mostly because whenever I left the former and entered the latter I almost died, either by drowning in the snow of a southern mountain, being eaten by a bison in an ancient eastern forest, or choking on the sand of a northern beach. I learnt that the Greeks were on the money when they identified the four stages of love as Fear, Kiss, Quarrel and Indifference. I learnt that, on average, Poles would sooner fall to their knees and take a blow to the head than hear a bad word said about pierogi.

At the end of my unlikely year in Poland, with the triggering of Article 50 ringing in my ears, I went home the long way. I wanted to stretch my departure across the continent, the better to understand what I was leaving, what Britain was leaving. I drove beyond the Berlin Wall and through the Rhineland, then stopped in Belgium to call at the EU to see where British laws used to be made. I crossed the Channel by ferry to Hull, where a Polish butcher gave me a free sour cucumber because I knew where he was from.

Waiting for a train to London, I looked down and realised I was standing on the words of Philip Larkin, whose poetry had been set into the concourse. “Always it is by bridges that we live.” It was a fitting note to finish on, to start from, to go on from.

A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland by Ben Aitken is out now and available from retailers including this one (Icon, £12.99)
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Illustration: Joseph Joyce